REVIEW: Showdown at Baxter Springs by Larry Wood
Dear Mr. Wood,
I’ll be honest and admit that I approach westerns written by men with a degree of trepidation. From the ones I’ve read or tried in the past, it seems men have an almost irresistable urge to have their female characters assualted or raped during the course of the story and then treat the event as if it’s nothing more than a hangnail. I don’t know why this is but it drives me nuts. Thanks, for not falling into that same rut.
Marshal Dallas Blackwood and the stage driver try to tell Easterner Anastasia Forsythe that she’s better off waiting for the next stage to Baxter Springs since Blackwood is hauling a prisoner there for trial but the young woman has no intention of waiting a day longer. Which is something she lives to regret when the prisoner’s gang members try and spring him from custody. After picking up a dandy who is much more to Anastasia’s taste than the loutish Marshal, a wild shootout and hell for leather chase across the prairie, the stage finally arrives in the small town.
Anastasia isn’t much more impressed with Baxter Springs than she was with the Fort nor has her opinion of Dallas improved much however she does admit that he seems to know what he’s doing and does it well. Which is a good thing as the outlaws aren’t finished trying to free their man from trial and a hanging. Will Dallas be able to bring the outlaws to justice and change pretty Miss Forsythe’s mind?
At first glance Anastasia is a pretentious snob, which is your point. I was amused that Dallas might enjoy her looks but not her attitude though he quickly cottons on to the fact that she’s a fish out of water trying to hide her unease. Still that doesn’t stop him from giving her an order or two – much to her distaste – or not coddling her. I knew when the dandy Royal Darling (oh, what a fun name!) showed up Anastasia would initially fall for his slick ways and fancy talking, which she does, but she also slowly begins to show some discrimination in her choice of picnic partners as well as more common sense about life in the west and the people who live there. By the end of the book, she’s even getting a touch feisty – though in a good way – and more than proves her worth after the run in with the Kiowa warriors.
Dallas is a man of the west. He doesn’t waste words or actions where they’re not needed, rides hard, does the job he’s paid for and takes care of his horse. And no one tells him how to do his job, not even the mayor. He also seems to have a touch of PTSD from his time in the Union army during the late War though the tracking he did going after Quantril and his raiders stands him in good stead when the time comes to go after Pendergrass and his gang. He might not impress Anastasia at first sight but I like the way she has a chance to form a different view of him from his deeds and his kindnesses – both to widows and working girls. Dallas is one hell of a lawman, stubborn about seeing the job done, patient in following the trail to catch his man whether in town or not and determined to see justice done even if most people don’t think a dead indian is worth the effort. He tries to see both sides of an argument and enforces the same law for everyone. He also doesn’t view taking a life lightly, though if the need is there, he’ll do it.
The secondary characters add depth to the story without taking too much attention away from Dallas and Anastasia. My favorites are Reuben Huff who takes over the reins of the Concord coach with a boyish delight, Widow Opal Wilson who shoots straight and takes her own revenge for her loss at the hands of the outlaw gang and deputy Guy Stephenson who does his own good job in law enforcement but can’t help doubling over in laughter at the thought of Anastasia heading out with Dallas to track a killer. The details of the story and life in the west, from the wildly careening stagecoach being hauled over a high ridge by the powerful six-horse team during a gun battle, to the layers of dust ever present and able to choke anyone who steps outside, to the wildness of the cowpunchers out to spend their money while still in town, make the book feel immediate.
The romance here is both slow and measured as well as quick. Dallas and Anastasia aren’t too impressed with each other to begin with though the thaw in their feelings is believable. It does take a while before anyone even thinks the “love” word and the first time it comes to Dallas’ mind he’s just as astounded as Anastasia is when she finally admits to her feelings. Hopefully she’ll get more used to his teasing manner once they’re hitched.
Overall, I am very impressed with this book. I ended up liking and cheering for the two main characters, the length is just right and it highlights an area of the country, Kansas, that I don’t often see in western romances. Some of the sentences were overly long leading to convoluted descriptions of the characters that were hard to unwind in my mind until I’d read the sentence a time or two. But for readers looking for a grittier historical western with romance, this is a good one to try.